Victorian London - Districts - Areas of London - Borough

see also George Godwin in London Shadows - click here


Sir, - I should not be doing my duty to you, or through you to the public, if I failed to give some short notice of the dens of infamy in the South of London. The East-end is bad enough, but it is, so to speak, mottled here and there with squalid districts, the inhabitants of which only offend against the Poor Laws by becoming paupers, and districts like Tiger Bay and Bluegate Fields, which though to outward seeming, clean and respectable enough, are, nevertheless, the haunts of inveterate criminals. The Queen, or Chieftainess, of this last named abominable locality is known the neighbourhood by the soubriquet of "Cast-iron Poll." Our party were curious to see her, for in her way she is a celebrity, having been convicted, as was proved at her last trial, no less than fifty-three times. Of course nearly all these convictions were light ones, varying in duration from 14 days to three months; yet from the time that this infamous woman was 15 - and she is now near 50 - she has seldom been much more than a month at a time out of prison. We were not gratified with a sight of this strange heroine of the place, as one of her companions (who our detective assured us had herself been convicted nearly 20 times) said that Poll, who at her last sentence got three years' penal servitude for a daring robbery from the person, would not be "out of the spree" for nearly another month. It may seem that the police of the district almost dread the release of this woman, so much trouble does she give them she has got so accustomed to, and apparently enamoured of, the gaol life that she will literally do anything after a short "spree" at the East-end of London to get back to it. She will go to an East-end police-station and insist on being locked up; but, of course, as there is no charge against her, her unusual request cannot be gratified. "No charge," she says, "well, I'll soon make one," and out she goes and attacks with teeth and nails the first man or woman she meets, or breaks the windows of a public-house, or, as she has done over and over again, the windows of the station-house itself. Then when she is brought back she coolly asks the Inspector why he did not lock her up when he knew she was going to commit her offence, and the same question is likely to occur to many of your readers, not alone in the case of "Cast-iron Poll," who has an idiosyncrasy for violent outrages, but in the case of the hardened thieves, who are ready to turn their hands to anything that is criminal, and become passers of bad money, filchers of watches, or seizers of the throats of belated pedestrians who are quietly walking home of a night. The East-end is, as I have said, very bad; but on a calm consideration, I am bound to confess that the south side of the water - those parts round the Mint and Kent-street in the Borough, the streets leading back from the London-road, some streets off the Kent-road, and some leading from the railway station at the Elephant and Castle are emphatically the worst neighbourhoods in London. Representative men and women of the chief classes of offenders against the laws may be found here in abundance - men and women who are literally looked up to with a dull sort of professional admiration as proficients in their trade. Murderers as murderers, of course, you never see. Murder is a crime among the companionship of thieves which is tabooed, not so much as a crime, but as a blunder. It attracts too much notice, and its supposed perpetrators are too keenly sought after to make the usual thieves' abiding place quite comfortable for the rest of the community. It, in fact, upsets all their little domestic arrangements for a week or more, and there is generally some timid member of the fraternity to be found say whether it was "Surrey Johnstone" or "Dark Bill" who threw the man on the curbstone and fractured his skull after having garotted him, and got his watch and money. Yet, though murder is as much as possible avoided among professional street robbers of a night, they make not the least scruple of using such violence as will secure their escape, and also, if possible, leave their victim senseless for a time. But the line to be drawn between stunning a man for an hour and killing him outright is so exceedingly fine that, in thieves' parlance, it is no wonder that "accidents" often happen. In the haunts in the South of London I was shown many men who were suspected to be garotters - that is to say, men whom the police had never caught in the fact, but of whose nightly occupations, closely as they watched them, they had very little moral doubt, though the legal proof was wanting. I was shown in the East and South sides of London what I may almost say were scores of these men, about whom the detectives expressed grave doubts as to my life being safe among them for a single hour if it were known I had 20l. or 30l. about me; and, above all, if the crime of knocking me on the head could be committed under such circumstances as would afford fair probabilities of eluding detection. I don't mean to say that these desperate criminals are confined to any particular quarter of London; unfortunately they are not, or, if they were, there is only one particular quarter in which we should wish to see them all confined, and that is Newgate. But no matter how numerous they may be elsewhere, there is certainly one quarter in which they are pre-eminently abundant, and that is around the alleys of the Borough. Here are to be found not only the lowest description of infamous houses, but the very nests and nurseries of crime. The great mass of the class here is simply incorrigible. Their hand is against every man; their life is one continuous conspiracy against the usages, property, and safety of society. They have been suckled, cradled, and hardened in scenes of guilt, intemperance, and profligacy. Here are to be found the lowest of the low class of beer-shops in London, and probably in the world, the acknowledged haunts of "smashers," burglars, thieves and forgers. There is hardly a grade in crime the chief representatives of which may not be met among the purlieus of the Borough. There are people who have been convicted over and over again, but there are also hundreds of known ruffians who are as yet unconvicted, and who, by marvellous good luck as well as by subtle cunning, have managed up to the present time to elude detection. It is the greatest error to suppose that all, or even a majority of the criminal classes are continually passing through the hands of justice. Griffith, the bank-note forger, who was tried, I think, in 1862, stated in prison that he had carried on the printing of counterfeit notes for more than 15 years. Of course this man was sedulous in concealing his occupation from the police, but there are hundreds of others who almost openly follow equally criminal and far more dangerous pursuits with whom the police cannot interfere. Our present business should be to look up these vagabonds, and our future vocation to destroy their recognized haunts. It is no good killing one wasp when we leave the nest untouched. Thieves, it must be remembered, are a complete fraternity, and have a perfect organization among themselves. The quarter round Kent-street in the Borough, for instance, is almost wholly tenanted by them, and the houses they occupy are very good property, for thieves will pay almost any amount of rent, and pay it regularly, for the sake of keeping together. The aspect of this quarter is low, foul and dingy. Obscenity of language and conduct is of course common to all parts of it, but it is not as a rule a riotous neighbourhood. Thieves do not rob each other, and they have a wholesome fear of making rows, lest it should bring the police into their notorious territory. These haunts are not only the refuges and abiding places of criminals, but they are the training colleges for young thieves. Apart from the crimes which arise, I might say, almost naturally from passion or poverty - apart also from the mere relaxation of moral culture, caused by the daily exhibition of apparent success in crime, it is known that an organized corruption is carried on by the adult thieves among the young lads of London. Mr. Symons says:-
    "A robbery of any magnitude frequently involves a score or more of persons in its suggestion and execution. Of the crimes cognizable in courts by far the most mischievous is theft. In the first place, it is out of all proportion the most extensive crime; in the next place, it involves far more demoralization. A crime of violence is perpetrated by one or, at most, two individuals. Almost all crimes are isolated except thefts, which are in a great measure gregarious. It is especially adapted to children."
    Now, Sir, it is the children who are taught in these thieves' nurseries in the East and south of London, and until these nurseries are destroyed there is no hope that thieving can be checked in this or in any other country. We cannot at once get rid of that crime, but we can, at all events, abate it, and bring London into somewhat closer similitude than it now bears to the capital of a great civilized nation. If the police were only some night to make a cordon around Kent-street and the Mint, in the Borough, and take all they found within their lines - man, woman and child - I can't help thinking from what I saw that they would do great good to the metropolis and its ratepayers. I venture to say that they would find two-thirds of their captives, not alone convicted thieves, but thieves living only by theft. In the Mint - I suppose from old tradition - the manufacture of spurious money is carried on more extensively than in any other part of London. Of course the police don't know where these places are; they can only "suspect." But they can point to the low beerhouses where bad money can be bought. The best counterfeits command prices of 9s. a dozen for florins, 5s. a dozen for shilling, and 3s. a dozen for sixpences. These coins might be taken casually even by the most experienced persons, while others, which are mere leaden counters, fetch as little as 2s. 6d. the dozen florins; but these can only be safely passed on drunken men. It is useless for the police to declaim against these notorious haunts. If they searched them, they would find nothing, and all their representations as to their infamous character weigh nothing with the Excise so long as the man who keeps the den open is able to pay for his licence. In the same way the police can point to low beerhouses where card-sharping, skittle-sharping, and hocussing is of almost daily occurrence. I was rather incredulous of this, but my Detective assured me that for one case of this kind that came to light more than 200 were passed over unnoticed. The people thus victimized are, very naturally, ashamed of their folly and crime, and do not wish to make public how they have been inveigled into these sinks; in most cases by young girls. Of course no one sympathizes with the foolish sots who are thus beguiled; but is it quite right that the Government should virtually sanction the keeping of these houses, and not only take the wages of their iniquity, but actually give them immunity by removing their control from the police? The Excise is to all intents and purposes the landlord of these places, and a landlord knowingly receiving for his rent stolen property would be answerable to the law. Is it not, then, a delicate refinement to say that he shall not be equally liable for receiving money which is by public repute derived from the open encouragement of fraud and theft? In this matter I am afraid the Excise cannot be said to be "Not guilty."
Nothing impressed me more during the many visits I made than the organization that evidently exists among thieves' quarters. They have their own set of "leaving-shops," publichouses and tradesmen. They are, in fact, a distinct community, and the thief who "peaches" upon another - as they will sometimes do from anger or disappointment in their share of booty - must leave the community for ever. Apart from his being not safe, he would never be trusted again, and, under an assumed name, he must seek his life by crime in Liverpool, Birmingham, or Manchester. As our part went round the South of London our coming was generally known at all the haunts we visited, but it made no difference. They knew we had only come to see them, and though perhaps they might have left off "larking," they were otherwise much as they usually are. The first house we entered was at the end of a narrow, villainous-looking alley off Kent-street, and at the door of the house were some half-dozen "roughs," who in a verbal telegraph instantly passed downstairs the notice that we were coming. Before we entered my conductor told me, that I should see nothing but the most notorious and convicted thieves. Had he sown to me that I should see nothing but honest men I could not have believed him. We passed through a low doorway, and down into a sort of cellar, or underground basement floor, which had been turned into a kind of kitchen, and here were assembled, to the number of about 30 or 40, some of the worst types of the most criminal class, and any one who is familiar with the aspect of the inmates of Portland and Dartmoor will learn at once what is meant when I say this. They had the same low, retreating foreheads, the same eager cunning of their deep-set eyes, the same hard-set, yet shifty contour of the mouth - a kind of mouth that you could almost see was one that could whine for mercy in one breath and refuse it in another. There was not only of all those present whom a respectable person would not instinctively have shrunk from meeting in the day or night. They were mostly young men and young women - or, I had better say, young girls. Not one single one, from first to last, could give any account of himself as to saying where he worked, what he worked a, or who had ever employed him. Some said they lived "By odd jobs," some said they worked "Down the river." The girls said they sold matches, some said they sang in publichouses, some that they "begged;" but not one man or woman could name and employer, not one could name a single piece of honest work he had been engaged in , and these was not one who did not deny that he had got a penny that week. And this was Friday night, and the men were all smoking and drinking beer, and the woman, I was told (it was then past 1 o'clock), had had their suppers more than two hours ago. I spoke to many with a view of ascertaining if they had ever been in Casual Wards or Refuges. Of the scores that I questioned, I only met with one who had ever been in a Refuge, and this was the conversation that passed in the presence of my friends and my conductor. My witness was a young man of about 25, a convicted thief, a known rough, and associate of regular thieves. I asked him had he ever been in a Casual Ward. He said, as all the rest said, "No," and believe him quite truly "that he liked getting his own living and not going to a work'is."
    "Have you ever been to a Refuge then? - Yes; I tried to go once.
    "Did you stay there? - No, I didn't. They asks too many questions, and they asks them over and over agin, and when you forgets what you've said first out you goes.
    "But if you tell the truth at first you surely can't forget that? - Oh, yes you can though, when you are asked over and over again.
    "What questions did they ask you? (a very long pause) - They asked me if I had a father or mother alive.
    "Well, have you? - No; they're both dead.
    "Well, if you were asked that a dozen times you would not forget it, would you? - Yes, I did, and they turned me out.
    "The truth is that you cannot get your beer and pipe at the Refuge? - Yes, that'ws it (a great laugh at this), and they makes you say prayers, and (this was said with a spit of intense disgust) they makes you wash."
    This was the only case where I met any who had among these criminals been at either a Refuge or a Casual Ward. The house in which this thieves jubilee is held makes up some 120 beds, and the lessee, if I may so call him, pays 10l. a week rent for the place. In this place men are charged 4d. a night for their beds, and men and women 1s. In most other houses married couples are only charged 6d. I was so much struck with this discrepancy that I asked the reason plain and pointedly, and the reply was equally plain and pointed. "Bless you, Sir, I should no more think of asking if the people who come here are married than I should think of asking if the men who come here are thieves. So long as they pay their money and are quiet I asks no questions." After this I need not further explain what the house is, nor need I dwell upon the class of female children whom I saw there, and who, though living on their infamy, were more fit for a nursery than a notorious thieves' house of ill fame. But the dreary work of recording all these houses that we visited would be as wearisome to me as it would be disgusting to your readers. House after house we entered, and to the same questions the same replies were given; they could not tell at what they had worked, or where they had last been at work, or where or when they meant to go to work next time. In only one house, however, I am bound to say were we treated with any rudeness, and in only one house was any sort of violence offered, and this was only by a drunken thief, whose comrades instantly restrained him. As the law goes at present the occupants of these houses and the police jog on very well. The latter know they cannot touch these notorious men and women without a specific charge, and the notorious men and women are as a rule far too knowing to leave many traces of specific charges against them, no matter what it costs them to elude detection or remove witnesses. But the cost of maintaining these people in this life of crime is something enormous, and amounts every year to nearly the expenses of an Abyssinian war.
I do not pretend to offer suggestions as to the prevention of all crime, but this I do say, that unless the low beershops, the low pawnbrokers, and the low leaving-shops are put under the entire control of the police it is idle to talk of diminishing crime in the metropolis or bringing in Bills for its better suppression. I have told truly what I have seen and your readers will be able to judge whether or not such open resorts of criminals should be allowed to exist both in the East and South of London.
    Yours most obediently,
    London.            N.A.W.

letter to The Times, 31 March, 1869

[ ... back to main menu for this book]

Borough (The).óThe Borough lies on the Surrey side of London-bridge, and is one of the busiest and most crowded parts of London. The scene at the open space at the foot of the bridge, where innumerable streets seem coming up from the lower grounder side, others emerging from under railway arches, and all contributing their share to the great flow of traffic, is bewildering. The traffic here is of a different character from that at that other great centre in front of the Mansion House. There are comparatively few hansom cabs, except those which come down from the great group of railway stations; there are omnibuses, but not in very great numbers; the bulk of the traffic is in great wagons and vans and in carts of all kinds. The beautiful church of St. Saviourís, close to the western corner of the southern approach to the bridge, although externally spoilt and dwarfed the high level line of railway which runs by its side, is one of the ecclesiastical gems of London.        

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

see also James Greenwood in Toilers in London - click here

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here